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Colorado hospitals brace as Covid cases climb

As cold weather sets in across Colorado, Covid-19 cases continue to rise while the availability of hospital beds decreases.

DENVER (CN) — Like a runny nose before a cold sets in, Colorado is reporting early symptoms of strain on its health care system: continued increases in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. On Friday, the state reported Covid patients occupy 14% of the state’s hospital beds, leaving acute care at 91% capacity and ICU beds at 93% capacity.

With less than a thousand hospital beds available statewide, Colorado is planning for the worst.

“Our region of the country is experiencing a peak right now that is very challenging for our hospital capacity,” Governor Jared Polis said in a Thursday press conference. “We currently have 1,167 hospitalizations for Covid-19 in our state. That’s higher than where we were last week and the week before.”

As a preliminary measure, Colorado is expanding access to monoclonal antibody treatment from hospitals to urgent care facilities. If needed, the state will suspend cosmetic and elective surgeries, request FEMA medical surge teams and reactive crisis standards of care.

These measures are meant to ensure resources remain available to treat not just Covid patients but others seeking emergency and routine treatment as well.

“We do want to sound the alarm about where our hospital system is in terms of capacity, but we also want Coloradans to continue to see care,” said Cara Welch, senior director of communications for Colorado Hospital Association.

“Even if you're reading that the hospitals are full and our doctors are busy, you should still seek your regular health care. If you're having chest pains, and would normally call 911, you should still call 911,” Welch said.

Public health experts attribute rises in Covid cases to a combination of unvaccinated adults and the Delta variant, as well as unvaccinated children gathering in schools and the relaxing of nonpharmacological measures like mask-wearing and indoor occupancy limits. But these are challenges every state in the nation faces.

“It’s not exactly clear why Colorado is not following the same pattern that most other states around the country are,” said Dr. Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“Some possible factors are waning immunity in the vaccinated population — Colorado had pretty aggressive vaccination campaigns earlier in the pandemic, and vaccine-produced immunity is starting to weaken,” Mays said. “It’s also possible our unvaccinated population in Colorado has a larger share of people who didn't get a prior infection because of the aggressive mitigation measures earlier in the pandemic.”

While Mays said there isn’t enough hard data to confirm these hypotheses, he points to vaccination as a sure-shot way to reduce infection.

Seventy-seven percent of Colorado’s hospitalized Covid-19 patients, or 904 people, are unvaccinated.

Statewide 72% of eligible Coloradans, or 3.5 million people, have been vaccinated against Covid-19. This leaves 2.2 million people unvaccinated, a group including children under 12, people with medical or religious exemptions, and numerous hard-to-reach vaccine-hesitant people, many of whom live in rural communities.

“Everyone over 18 in Elbert County that wants a vaccination has gotten it by now,” said Dwayne Smith, the public health director for Elbert County.

That includes 73% of Elbert County’s elderly population, along with 51% of people age 12 and up. The rural county 40 miles southeast of Denver tracked a 2-week case rate of 142 cases per week, nearly quadruple the rate of 40 cases per week documented in August. The county also reported nine Covid deaths since late summer.

Between low vaccination rates, the Delta variant, and pandemic fatigue, Smith expects the surge to continue through the holidays.

“Covid-19 is endemic here,” Smith said. “Increases in transmission are anticipated, just as we saw last year, ramping up prior to Thanksgiving, and continuing to spike through the Christmas holiday and New Year's.”

While cases have generally declined nationwide, public health researchers say it’s unlikely the disease will ever be eradicated.

“Even if we vaccinate 100% of population, it's still possible that the disease can circulate within population,” said Dr. Sen Pei, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. “I think people should still be vigilant about the disease.”

Given this, Pei stressed the importance of being vaccinated.

“Based on the data we have, the people who got vaccinated have a much lower rate of infection, and also hospitalizations and death,” Pei said.

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